Religion

Post about Religious topics. My spiritual journey is a subtopic of this.

The Unexpected Santa: An Advent Reflections of an Ontological Priest

St. Nicholas Day, 2017. 7:20 PM. The GPS announced, “In a quarter of a mile take a left on to Airport Road.” It was guiding me home from an unexpected engagement as Santa at the Community Health Center in Hartford, CT. For the past few years, I’ve been Santa at our Middletown site, and again I’ve grown out a fairly respectable Santa beard. I had the outfit ready, so when I got the message, “x-mas emergency. We lost our Santa. Can you come?” I quickly rearranged my schedule.

I called my wife to let her know the change of plans. My youngest daughter answered the phone. She was not doing well. She handed to phone over to her mother who informed me the two of them were headed back to the emergency room. We had been there just a couple days earlier, trying to get my daughter’s migraine, flu, and whatever else is going on, under control. My wife told me things would be okay and I should go ahead with being Santa.

They say that priests really only have three different messages and everyone sermon they deliver is one of those three messages. I’m not sure what the other two are for me, but the one I am most aware of is that God loves you, the way you are, right now, not as some nice concept or a phrase you tell someone to cheer them up or when you pass the peace. God’s love is real. It is palpable. It is right now, if we can only stop for a moment to hear it.

It is a message I try to deliver any chance I get, in any form I can. When I serve as Santa at the health center, I know that some of the kids I am hugging have not felt that love enough recently. Life is hard when ends don’t meet, for kids, for parents, for all of us. The gifts that some of the kids receive when they visit Santa, may be the only gift they receive all year. They need to hear the message of love in their language and setting.

There is a YouTube video I like to watch every year before I am Santa for these kids and their parents, Validation. It is about a parking attendant that validates more than parking tickets as he sets out on his own journey towards validation.

Those same people that say that priests really only have three different messages also say that they are messages that the priest needs to hear themselves. I am on my own journey towards more fully being aware of the love God has for me. It hasn’t been an easy journey, and I don’t expect it to get any easier any time soon.

As I drove up to Hartford, I prayed that just a little bit of God’s love would come through me on this very distracted day. Not only do I have my youngest daughter to worry about. I have a week left in my first term in seminary. I’ve got a couple big papers I need to finish up, and with each unexpected event, the time to work on my papers slips perilously away. I thought of the real St. Nicholas and I asked him to pray for me as well.

7:22 I hugged a lot of kids today and thought about my youngest daughter who needs extra hugs today as well. As soon as I get on the Interstate, I will call my wife for an update. The Bluetooth display in the car flashed. “Incoming call. Unknown Caller”. Typically in the mornings or evenings when I am on my way to work, or on my way home, when I get a message like that, it means that my eldest daughter is calling me via Skype from Japan.

She is just finishing up her master’s degree in Gender Studies and has applied for a fellowship to work on her doctorate there. We had hoped she would be coming home for Christmas. It has been too long since we saw her face to face. She had bought tickets to come home, but my wife lost her job and money and time is tight for all of us. So, when the airlines screwed up her flight, we all agreed that it was probably best for her to stay in Japan.

Tomorrow, she has the big interview for the fellowship; a four minute presentation followed by six minutes of questions. She gave me the four minute presentation, translated on the fly from Japanese. I’m not sure if there is an official title of her presentation, or if there is, what its translation to English would be. If I were writing a title for it, it would be something like, “Historical Research as Activism: Studying the Amateur Historical Research of Women’s Peace Groups in Japan in the 1980s”

We’ve been talking through her research ever since she headed off to Japan, so I had a pretty good idea of what the presentation was, even before she started. Last year, when I was Santa at the health center, I took a picture of me reading The Guattari Reader. Her classmates have been fascinated by the story of their American classmate’s father who dresses up as Santa and reads Deleuze and Guattari and has long discussions about Foucault and Fanon.

I was almost home when the discussion was interrupted by another phone call. My wife was calling to say that she and our youngest daughter were leaving the hospital and on their way home. There were no substantial changes and the various tests proved inconclusive.

I got home, ate a little bit, and went to bed. I’ve got about a week to go in the semester. I have various family concerns to address. I have another gig as Santa coming up. It is Advent. A time of waiting. In many ways, I’ve felt like I’ve been living in Advent for the past three years.

As I wait, as we all wait, I want to remind you that God does love you in a real, palpable way. I want to remind you, in the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “Patience wins all it seeks. Whoever has God lacks nothing: God alone is enough.” Likewise, as Julian of Norwich says, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Happy Advent, everyone.

Reconnecting Spirituality to Daily and Political Life via Lobbying and the News Media

This is a commentary that I wrote for the News and Religion course that I am taking at the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, oh LORD, our strength and our redeemer.” Psalm 19:14

How would an epigraph like this sound in our pluralistic secular media? Would we wonder about the use of a quote from the Judeo-Christian tradition instead of from some other tradition, or perhaps a humanist perspective? What role does or should spirituality play in the news media of today? How do views about this vary between the general public and reporters?

The report, Most Americans say media coverage of religion too sensationalized explores some of these issues.

The public and reporters also have different perceptions about what makes for good religion coverage. More than two-thirds (69.7%) of the public says that they prefer coverage that emphasizes religious experiences, spirituality, practices, and beliefs. In contrast, more than three fifths (62.9%) of reporters say that the audiences they serve prefer religion coverage that emphasizes religious institutions, activities, events, and personalities.

The problem is that “religious experiences, spirituality, practices, and beliefs” are often very personal and subjective and are often not breaking news. As a friend of mine quips about spiritual practices, “with priests these days, it’s out with the old and in with the ancient.”

Yet underlying the “religious institutions, activities, events, and personalities” that reporters like to write about these days are these “religious experiences, spirituality, practices, and beliefs”. In our modern age of objectivity, we are losing touch with this spirituality.

A few years ago, my daughter, who grew up in a land of McMansions decided to build and move into a tiny house. She did it as an art project. During her gallery talks, she would speak of the goal of reconnecting art to daily life. Our large houses are filled with mass produced merchandise and we too rarely take a moment to see beauty around us. The same could be said about spirituality today.

Spirituality, morality, and the stuff of religion should be informing our daily and political lives. Yet in our efforts to be objective as well as our efforts to be tolerant of other beliefs, we seem to have lost touch with the spiritual and moral in the public sphere.

I have run for state representative multiple times. While we might acknowledge God in an invocation to an event candidates are speaking at, and our biographies should mention the religious institution we belong to, we seem to rarely bring our spirituality into our stump speeches.

In 2016, I reluctantly ran for state representative again. I wanted to focus more of my time on my priestly journey. I tried to bring the two together as much as I could, and watched my audience squirm as I started a stump speech off with the quote from Psalm 19. It seems like many of us want coverage about spiritual issues, we just don’t want to have to grapple with it in our own lives.

Yet there are people that want to bring the religious into the public sphere and the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life report on Lobbying for the Faithful explores more than 200 “organizations engaged in religious lobbying or religion-related advocacy in Washington, D.C…. [that] collectively employ at least 1,000 people in the greater Washington area and spend at least $350 million a year”.

There are also numerous media watchdog organizations seeking to ensure that faith is adequately and accurately covered. There is nothing particularly new or unique about such organizations. In 2003, I was part of the Dean Rapid Response Team. This was a group of volunteers from across the country that worked together to support Gov. Dean in his presidential bid. There was a feeling that the media coverage of Gov. Dean did not adequately represent his views or our thoughts about why he would be a great president. We had a mailing list where we would share links to articles that we felt needed responses and talking points to help our members respond.

More recently, this week I sent an email to the communications committee of a church I attend. Like the volunteers in the Dean campaign many years ago, we are trying to find ways to get information about our church presented in the most positive manner possible. The local newspapers are short staffed and generally don’t write about matters of faith, so we seek to provide editors and reporters with as much usable information as possible. Often, that includes providing material that can be copied and pasted with minimal effort.

Whatever our cause, we are likely to feel that the news media provides inadequate or inaccurate information about it. We will seek ways of using any media we can to correct this.

Underlying all of this is the question of how we help reconnect the spiritual to our personal and public lives, and do it in a way that embraces other faith traditions. To put it another, even today, we continue to struggle like the psalmist to find ways to make our words and thoughts always acceptable.

Cognitive Dissonance, Filter Bubbles, and Fake News

This is another commentary that I wrote for the "News and Religion" course I am taking at the Religion and Freedom Center of the Newseum. Comments are always greatly appreciated.

What a wonderful time it once was. In the morning, the New York Times was delivered to our doorsteps, bringing us all the news that was fit to print and in the evening the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite, summed it all up I the CBS evening news.

If we didn’t like what they had to say, we could read the NY Daily News or the newspaper started by one of America’s recently re-discovered super hero founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, the NY Post. If CBS wasn’t to our liking, we could watch NBC or ABC.

The Federal Communications Commission had rules in place about media ownership, equal time, and the Fariness doctrine. Over the past few decades, especially as more and more news moved online, these rules have been relaxed, and it has become harder and harder to get fair and equal coverage.

Yet perhaps things were not as fair and equal as they seemed. Was the New York Times really telling us all the news that was fit to print, or just the news that its editors felt was fit to print? Was Walter Cronkite truly presenting an objective view of the day’s news, or were his broadcasts shaped by the opinion and biases of the writers and editors?

There is an old Ethiopian proverb, “Until the lioness tells the story, the hunt will always be glorified.” Was our news being shaped by a cishet white corporate male perspective, by what it chose to cover, chose not to cover and the way it presented what it did cover?

The Internet brought about important changes in whose voices got heard. Just about anyone could set up a blog and write their own commentary. People admitted, or perhaps more accurately, promoted their biases, and there was a belief that by doing so, informed readers could get a much more complete picture.

In 2004, I was credentialed as a blogger to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Like several other bloggers, I had access to the proceedings and could write from my own point of view, expressing my biases, not having to please any editors.

As the convention was getting started, there was a breakfast for the bloggers. A guest speaker at was Pulitzer Prize winning political journalist for the associated press, Walter Mears. During the question and answer period, David Weinberger, one of the co-authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto, and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University asked Mears who he was supporting for president. Mears wouldn’t say, citing the importance of being objective. Weinberger responded asking how we trust Mears if he wouldn’t admit to his biases.

USA Today wrote about it in Blogs, journalism: Different factions of the write wing and years later, Weinberger expanded about it in a blog post, Transparency is the new objectivity.

Yet knowing a writer’s biases, whether they admit them or not, is only the starting point of understanding stories in the news. Last year, Factcheck.org wrote an article, How to Spot Fake News. It pointed out the importance of checking sources, digging deep, checking one’s own biases and other important ways to spot fake news. Unfortunately, most news consumers do not take the time to do this.

This takes us to the question of what fake news really is. In the Factcheck article, they refer to it as “a malicious fabrication”. Historians might put fake news into the larger historical context and call it propaganda. The phrase is now often used by some politicians to discredit anyone who writes something critical of them.

So the question becomes, how much of an issue is fake news? In his article “Is ‘fake news’ a fake problem? in the Columbia Journalism Review, Jacob Nelson writes,

“First, the fake news audience is tiny compared to the real news audience–about 10 times smaller on average… We also found that the fake news audience does not exist in a filter bubble. Visitors to fake news sites visited real news sites just as often as visitors to real news sites visited other real news sites.

This is not to say that people don’t exist in filter bubbles. In an article exploring fake news, Researchers Say They've Figured Out What Makes People Reject Science, And It's Not Ignorance, Fiona McDonald writes,

The issue is that when it comes to facts, people think more like lawyers than scientists, which means they 'cherry pick' the facts and studies that back up what they already believe to be true.

This becomes a special concern for those reporting on faith and religion. Many of the narratives of our religious traditions are at best unverifiable and would easily be dismissed by non-believers. In my Introduction to the Old Testament class, we recently discussed some of the older stories, like those of the exodus might be considered fake news. I am finding myself in lots of discussions about the role of written texts in forming our cultural history and biases. They texts might remain valuable, even if they are not factual.

As an example, consider the story of Teddy Stoddard. It is a heart-warming story of a little boy and a teacher that believed in him. It gets circulated frequently on the Internet. It isn’t true, but as Carole Fader observes at the end of her article, “It obviously has had a real impact on many people — even if Teddy, Mrs. Thompson and their story aren’t real.”

Stories of our belief, whether they date back thousands of years or are more current stories about what we believe about our fellow humans are very powerful. Some stories feel like they represent some universal truth. Others reflect the cultural memory of one religion or another. These days it becomes more complicated to choose the stories we tell as our politics becomes more polarized and our society becomes more multi-cultural representing greater religious variations.

So yes, it was a much simpler time, when could get all our facts from a hegemonic filter bubble that gave us all the news that was fit to print in the morning and in in the evening, the most trusted man in America could tell us, “that’s the way it is”. Now, we need to choose which information we believe. We can do it to minimize cognitive dissonance, or we can do it to expand our understanding.

Now, more than ever, we need to find ways to help all of us expand our understanding.

#SMS17 Beyond the Parish Walls

On Saturday, the South Central Region of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut held an ‘unconference’ where we discussed many topics of interest to the attendees. One topic was social media, which was especially significant since Sunday is Social Media Sunday.

One of the goals of the various regions in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut is to promote inter-parish collaboration, so we talked a bit about how often we liked the pages of the churches around us, and shared their posts. It is my hope that our discussion at the unconference, my blog post about the unconference, and subsequent discussions will lead to better collaboration between churches.

Of course, working in social media, I’m interested in measuring this effect. So, I have put together this list of churches in the South Central Region that I like, and how many of my friends on Facebook like them. The list is probably incomplete, but it is a good starting point. I’d love to see some of my friends do something similar.

Then, we could all make an effort to get to know people from neighboring churches, like them on Facebook, share their posts, and come back at a later time and see how these numbers have changed.

So, here’s my list, with the Region Facebook page listed first, and then the different parishes in the region and the number of friends that like or have visited the parishes. I’ve sorted it by the number of friends that like or have visited the parishes, and I was surprised to see that my home parish is not at the top of the list.

Ember Letter - September 2017

To those who pray for me and those who offer me guidance and encouragement during this current phase of my journey, peace and love in our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is a tradition in parts of the Christian church for those seeking new ministries to write quarterly letters to those offering support and guidance, sometimes in formalized Ember Letters. It is within a broad interpretation of this tradition that I write this.

I will start with a comment from my previous letter, where I mentioned a friend who works for a local divinity school telling me that she did not believe I would be happy until I started seminary. I reached out to find a school that would fit my particular needs, especially around being able to work full-time and support my family while at the same time attending classes.

Church Divinity School of the Pacific accepted me into their online Certificate of Theological Studies program. The certificate requires eight elective courses and is, in a sense, a seminary postulancy. I am taking these courses as I seek a clearer sense of what God is calling me to, and whether I will continue on to an M.Div, and MTS, and MAR, or some other degree.

One of the things that I am excited about is CDSP’s participation in the Graduate Theological Union and the ability to take courses at various seminaries in the Bay area. One of the courses that caught my attention was News and Religion, offered by the Religious Freedom Center which is part of the Newseum in Washington, DC. I have applied and been accepted into their program as well.

So, this fall, I am taking News and Religion and Introduction to the Old Testament. I feel greatly blessed to have these opportunities and am enjoying myself greatly as I struggle to balance work, life, studies, church activities, and civic responsibilities.

During a recent mid-day Eucharist service, our discussion veered into what I was reading for seminary. One of the books on my list which is having a big impact on my thinking is “Radical Welcome” by the Rev. Stephanie Spellers. How do we radically welcome people into the Jesus Movement including at the diocesan level as well as the parish level? How do we radically welcome those called to various ministries?

I continue to work with the region leadership team in the South Central Region and spend a lot of time thinking about how we welcome people to activities of the region. As part of this, we are recognizing that not everyone has a specific parish that they associate with. I feel strong ties to a couple parishes. Others feel ties to no particular parish. What language do we use to welcome people with varying relationships to different churches? Does it welcome all people? At our next gathering, and we have been using the word gathering instead of convocation, since gathering feels more welcoming, will include an “unconference” which is another way to welcome everyone so that all may be heard.

As I discussed the ideas from Radical Welcome during mid-day Eucharist, a friend made a comment that my seminary reading list was not for me, but it was for all of us. It was a very powerful comment that I have been thinking a lot about. It seems as if we spend too much time thinking about where a process might be leading. We spend too much time preparing people for what they might be doing in three or five years, and not enough time on what they are doing right now.

Seminary is a wonderful experience for me and hopefully will shape who I am becoming, but it needs to be a wonderful experience through me to those around me right now as well.

This relates back to the underlying themes I’ve written about in the past. I continue to seek, using the language from a college experience, to live each moment more fully and more lovingly than the previous. I continue to seek, using the language of Brother Lawrence, to do all things for the love of God as I practice the presence of God. I continue to ask of God, in the language of St. Teresa of Avila, “God, What do you want of me?”

I continue to be reassured by the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “God alone is enough” and the words of St. Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing shall be well.”

Over the past few months, I have continued to lead a service at a local nursing home and talk with some of the folks there. I continue to work with the dinner ministry, and I continue to talk with my friends on the street.

In addition, during the time of transition at Grace and St. Peter’s, I have had a few opportunities to preach, both on Sunday mornings as well as the opportunity to deliver a homily at the memorial service for the daughter of a friend. I have also been assisting with selecting hymns for Sunday services and helping with services in any other ways that I can. These experiences, too, have been a blessing to me, and hopefully to those around me.

I thank each of you for your ongoing prayers and your words of guidance and encouragement. I continue to pray for each of you as well.

All glory to God,
Aldon

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